Mikael Stanne has a reputation of being not only one of the best frontment in Death Metal but also one of the kindest and most accommodating people in the music business – something that I eventually had to find out for myself, especially seeing as I have been supporting Dark Tranquillity from the early stages of their career. The Swedish Deathsters found themselves visiting London for a second time since their 9th studio album “We Are The Void” was released and so I grabbed the opportunity to arrange an interview with the band’s charismatic frontman. Our discussion, as expected, focused on the album and its recently released ‘Tour Edition’ but also revolved around the band’s visual representation both on and off the stage, their touring experiences and future plans.
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis
• Hi Mikael, apologies for having to impose myself on you so close to the band’s performance but I have been looking forward to this discussion for a while now.
Mikael: Actually for me it is quite alright as I like to have something else to do rather than to sit around and be nervous about the show or whatever.
• It’s great to have you guys back here as it is always a pleasure to see Dark Tranquillity live, especially when it happens that you are promoting a really good album in “We Are The Void” – an album that you have been touring in support of for two years now.
Mikael: Yeah (sighs).
• You just sounded really tired there – has it been an exhausting experience?
Mikael: It has been! We haven’t toured in a while and so these dates now are like us getting back into shape, which is fine, but yeah – we have done some really long tours. We started out by doing three months in America when the album first came out, we did a really long European tour with tones of shows involved pretty much everywhere and so yeah, it’s been a long journey. It’d been cool, though – really cool!
• Ok, so you have been through the recording process, you created the eleven compositions on offer and then you went on tour in support of those songs. Did you find that, after time, some of them have acquired a character that’s different from the one originally provided? Do your songs tend to evolve and change to a certain extent as time goes by?
Mikael: For sure! I mean, perhaps a song will not change in a way that is noticeable to most people but for us, absolutely. Especially when doing old songs; sometimes they can take on a new meaning, you know, when you try to get into the headspace of where you were when you wrote them and how you felt when you wrote them. Sometimes it’s a cool thing to go back there but at the same time they do take on a new meaning because you can apply those words written back then to your life as it is now. Sometimes this happens to songs that we wrote fifteen years ago, you know? It’s the same with some of the new songs as well; if we have a solo that’s too weird to begin with it will eventually change. Our albums are like time capsules in a way, you know? You focus so hard on making sure that everything you are feeling right now is going to end up on the album, that it’s going to be down on paper and recorded. So then, to kind of revisit it later in a totally different setting, in front of people, and all of a sudden having to expose things that we have never talked about before, looking people in the eye who sometimes really get it or at least have an impression or an interpretation of what you do that’s their own…it totally changes the dynamic and the feeling of the song for me, and I love that! Sometimes you don’t really get it every night but when you do it’s…it’s kind of like a magic thing! That I really love and that’s why you can do…you sometimes talk about bands that have been touring for years, always playing the same songs and you think that it’s got to be boring, but for me, it very rarely is because a song does change depending on who is listening. Where you are, whether it is a little sweaty room or a massive stage, it’s like a…everything round a song influences and changes a song as well.
• People’s reaction to “We Are The Void” has been fairly positive, with most reviewers describing it as the culmination of what Dark Tranquillity stands for these last twenty two years and which summarises all the different avenues you have followed over the years. As a long-term fan, I find that description to be fairly accurate. How do you feel about it?
Mikael: Yeah, I think so too! I mean, I guess that this is how we work. You tend to take everything that you’ve learned over the years, everything that…all the good and the bad things that we have done in our songs over the years. You take that and you try to create something new from it. Sometimes we will start from a brand new idea, a new perspective, and then we apply all the knowledge and the filters that we have created for ourselves over the years and then it becomes something that is very much Dark Tranquillity but, at the same time, is a little bit new – at least to us.
• That is an interesting process indeed as you, as a band, have acquired a very characteristic style! It literally takes three seconds into any song to realise that it is created by Dark Tranquillity. Now, throughout your career you have been through a few changes in terms of musical direction, constantly trying to approach music in a different way. Based on that fact, and what you said just now, it must be a real challenge every time a new album is in its creative stage, to come up with something that’s new but which deserves to bare the band’s name, right? How do you find that balance and come up with the desired result each time?
Mikael: I think that it has to come up naturally, first and foremost, and like I said, no matter what starting point we make for ourselves, whether that is an odd riff or melody, we eventually will apply our filters to it. We will start talking about it, try things out and even change a little note here and there or a chord progression here and there, and then eventually it becomes something that is collectively something we approve of and also something that works with our sensibilities, our sense of melody and our sense of what is good or bad! We all of course come from, not come from but we have totally different ideas about music, sometimes, but we can all agree on things. Once we agree, things might change from the initial idea to the end product – it will have changed so many times that what ends up on the album is kind of like a compromise…like a good creative compromise!
• As far as the recording process is concerned, can you recall any moment when you said to yourself “I really want to work on that idea but it doesn’t quite fit to what Dark Tranquillity are all about” – an idea that you felt really strong for but just couldn’t find its way on the new album?
Mikael: For the new album? Hmm…I don’t…we were pretty, no; we were very prepared for this last album. We had all the songs kind of demoed so there were no real surprises there. I think that one of the songs, “Iridium”, which is the last song of the album; that was the one that we were not very sure about. That was actually one of the oldest songs that we have as Niklas (Sundin: lead guitar) wrote it back in 1996, or something like that, and it’s been lying around for all this time as it never really fit on any of our previous albums. We have remade that song many times over the years but it never really kind of felt properly good and now it did, so that was probably one of the hardest songs to do. “How are we to do it, how is it supposed to sound like”? These were the thoughts that were going through our minds. But that was the only track. I think that the one album we ever did that ended up changing in the most drastic way was “Haven” (2000) because when we recorded that, it was more of a continuation from “Projector” (1998), with way more clean vocals included and also with more layers of keyboards and clean guitars used than ever before. When we first started recording it we were like “oh, this is not working” and so all of the songs ended up becoming a lot harder that their original versions – more kind of Death Metal. That time things were quite weird as we didn’t really know what to do and opinions were balanced between “should it be mellower, Gothy or whatever” and “should it be heavier”? So that was kind of a hard thing to do at the time but this time around we were way more confident I think. We simply felt that these eleven tracks are all really strong songs, we felt good about doing them, and so I liked the fact that there were no real surprises when we recorded them. We all made our best effort to ensure that the album was recorded properly and when we listened to the end result we were all like “yeah”, you know?
• I am happy that you mentioned “Iridium” because it stands out as an example of an interesting paradox. Together with “Arkhangelsk”, they are the two songs that pave the way for something completely new in terms of a future musical direction – all sorts of new possibilities! I mean, the remaining compositions of the album, though quite varied indeed, all bare the band’s trademark style whereas these two are different in that sense. I have to admit that I never expected Dark Tranquillity to sound so dark and sinister after all these years, so it was a beautiful surprise!
Mikael: I really love that song (note: “Arkhangelsk”) and I think that where it comes from is the dynamic between Niklas and Martin (Brändström: keyboards) as song writers. They are indeed very different. Martin will lean towards more traditional stuff whereas Niklas towards more extreme. Usually when one will come up with a more traditionally-sounding idea, the other will add an aggressive creative spin on it and so it becomes something that is Dark Tranquillity. I think that there was a moment, or time during the writing of the album, where Niklas just felt like it was a little bit too ‘run of the mill’ or traditional Don Quixote stuff which he wanted to break out of. That is when he wrote “Arkhangelsk” which, at first, we though was a bit way too ‘out there’ and so different to the rest of the material. Then, when we started to get into it more, changing a few parts here and there, and it reached the point when it felt just perfect and so we recorded it. But that is where this song came from, that kind of dynamic, and I love that, you know? Sometimes I am almost like an outsider when we present ideas to each other and stuff and I love having the ability to go back and forth and to change things here and there until something really cool happens.
• In “We Are The Void” you are once again using both your brutal and your clean vocals and I can attest to the fact that you are pretty expressive in both styles of singing. Having said that, do you find that by investing more in your clean vocals you enable yourself to engage in more varied forms of expression – feelings that you would not necessarily be able to convey through your brutal ones? The reason why I ask this question is because I believe that the songs that have clean vocals are also the ones that sound harder to me when compared to all the rest.
Mikael: Hmm…I get you. I guess that…when we did “Projector” and we used my clean vocals for the very first time, it just made sense to us because, for once, we wanted to do something different and not be the same band that we thought that we were becoming but also because I felt the need to express myself in a different way – not just full on screaming all the time. It was interesting to write those songs as lyrically they had to deal with many different things and that was always a challenge and things are still the same nowadays. First of all, it all comes from the music, when I hear the very first song or when we create he basic structure for a song that is when I may think to myself “alright, perhaps something else is needed here”, you know? That is when such a song becomes something new and different to me but it all really comes from the music and what is written beforehand I think and if it feels natural! If my instinct demands me doing something simply more sonic then that is what I am going to do. It’s not like “on, perhaps this song is too bland, so let’s do a melodic chorus and make it more accessible” or anything like that – that would never happen. If it feels good and really fits then we will do it.
• Do you feel in a way more confident now to engage in such things, having already been through that process with “Projector”? I mean you have been through the phase of having fans reacting to the incorporation of clean vocals and now, ten years later, you can do it without any sense of fear.
Mikael: Kind of yeah, but at the same time… clean vocals are more widely used now in Death Metal but back in 1999 there were not many bands doing that, even more so in 1993 when we incorporated such elements into our first record. Lately all the bands have started doing it, the ‘screaming verse clean chorus’ kind of thing and, to me, that takes away from what Death Metal is, what extreme music is. I don’t want to use it like that at all – to me that’s just not interesting! You can listen to other kinds of music for such an effect, like Hip-Hop has a Hip-Hop verse and then a fantastic chorus from another song and you end up not digging the song but digging the chorus – that is wrong. So I don’t like that and I am really hesitant and really cautious about using it as I don’t want to do this for the wrong reasons.
• Well, the approach of mixing brutal and clean vocals is dealt with in a very tasteful way in my opinion as the main body of your songs are not a preparation towards a catchy chorus, which is what happens to the bands you have just described. In your case, everything has a certain aesthetic appeal and also serves a purpose.
Mikael: I really appreciate what you just said. To me, I would feel kind of silly or maybe fake or even forced if we had done things in any other way.
• Plus, we fans would be able to tell eventually as we tend to be fairly intelligent these days (I laugh).
Mikael: Indeed (laughs). We kind of made the decision to play extreme Death Metal and sure, you can incorporate all kinds of things in it, but I really don’t want to go too far away from it.
• Ok, I really need to ask you this next question as it’s a thing that’s really been bugging me. You have recently released a ‘Tour Edition’ of “We Are The Void”, right? Now, some people like me, were really happy to go out and buy the special edition of the album the moment it first came out and placed it in a prominent position in our CD collection. Now, almost a year later, we are told that there is another ‘special’ edition which has a new video and extra material! You have to agree that this is slightly unfair to us and so I feel the need to tell you off here! How involved were you in the decision to record this new edition of the album and what purpose does it serve? Was it the label’s idea?
Mikael: It’s a little bit of all you described. It’s…I am not a big fan of it. I love special editions of albums; I want the box, I want the special cover and this is a record company decision. They really wanted to do something really special for this tour, being like a ‘second coming’ of the album of some sorts and we were always fairly hesitant over it. There were many times that we said “no, we don’t really need it” or “there is no point to it” but this time round they (note: the label) thought they needed it because of the declining record sales, feeling the need to put something out there. So what were we left to do then? The record company has decided that this new version needs to be done, so we needed to ensure that it has as much value for money as it possibly can. So, for this edition, Niklas totally remade the cover and all the artwork. There is a booklet with tons of photos from all the different tours that we’ve done over the last couple of years, which is really amazing, and we have added all the extra songs, all the videos and all the stuff we prepared over the last year. So it’s…for people who are collectors and enjoy things like that. It’s something that I think that if you pay for you will definitely enjoy it and it’s really cool, but I totally get that not everybody wants to buy three different editions of the same album or stuff like that. What I really hate is when I see like a special edition of an album coming out like “holy sh*t, it is remastered and I want to buy it” and then it turns out that it is not that special and doesn’t have the stuff that I would like to see, you know? So, that’s why we want to make sure that, at least from our end, our part, we make sure that it is as cool as it can possibly be and has as much value for money as possible, but I…given the choice I would have said “no, we should not release it” but I did not have the choice.
• I like the fact that you are getting stressed now because, obviously, the most loyal fans of the band will buy it anyway. I haven’t had the pleasure of holding it in my hands yet because, to be honest with you, I was not sure whether it would have really anything interesting to offer that’s extra from the limited edition that I already own. Let’s say that you ‘sold it’ to me just now (I Laugh).
Mikael: Ok, the record company will be very happy with that (laughs).
• Well, the record companies always are when we say things like that, right? This ‘Tour Edition’ features an amazing video for the song “Zero Distance” which Niklas is heavily involved in as it is a product of this new company that he is a co-owner of. Now, some people claim that the time of music videos is long gone and that there is no value whatsoever in making them. What is your opinion over this matter? I assume that, based on what I saw, you must have spent a significant amount of money in order to make it, right?
Mikael: No (laughs). I will tell you all about it. Many years ago, when there were many music shows on TV, it made much more sense to make a music video – it didn’t make much sense to spend a lot of money on it but sometimes it worked, you know? Nowadays everything goes online, so everybody watches them on YouTube. We have always been interested in the visual side of the band, you know, and obviously Niklas has been doing all this stuff forever – he’s into this stuff as well. With this video, he wanted to do, wanted to try out doing a live action theme and Peter, who is the other guy and who is the photographer in Stockholm for many Metal magazines and stuff like that and he’s been a friend of ours for years helped out. I guess they have been talking about this for a while and Peter is a fantastic photographer who has shot one other video before which ended up being very cool and so we said to ourselves “ok, let’s see if it works”. We decided to do this last winter, or something like that, so it’s been almost a year since it was shot, during which time we decided to do it thinking that if it doesn’t work then it doesn’t work! We knew that we had time on our hands as we didn’t have to release it till this tour which was already booked by that stage, so Niklas and Peter had all the time in the world to make sure that it ended up being as perfect as it possibly could. I spent one day up in Stockholm in the freezing cold…
• …actually the climate looks pretty rough in the video – you look like you were really struggling there (I laugh).
Mikael: Oh, it was horrible but I am used to such things when it comes to shooting videos (laughs). They shot it on normal cameras, not even video cameras, just regular ones but they really knew what they were looking for as they both have ‘the eye’ for what is good. So filming was kind of simple and then they began editing and editing, adding all the effects and stuff like that. Niklas had never done any 3D effects before, so this was kind of like a learning experience for his as well, which was really cool. I was really excited, like every time he would send me a small clip I would be “oh man, this looks awesome” or “perhaps we should get rid of that ugly shot of me and add a better one instead” (laughs). So it was cool that they were able to work on it together as it was a learning thing.
• You realise of course that with such things you are raising the bar fairly high and that your fans will be expecting even better things next time round, right?
Mikael: Yeah, but I love the fact that Niklas becomes so much better with all that stuff and also the projections and the stuff that we are using on stage are constantly getting better. He is constantly improving, fixing and making them different from the last time we toured and stuff like that. Unfortunately you will not be able to see these changes today that well as the stage is fairly small and we do need more headroom but it is really cool and I am really happy that we are doing such things.
• This tour is quite an interesting one in the sense that there are quite diverse bands involved…well, I personally feel that there are way too many bands on the billing. Anyway, what I really want to focus on is two very interesting occasions: your first ever gig in India and the fact that you played in beautiful Georgia. I am dying to hear what your impressions were of these two shows. I expect you to say that the Georgian show was fairly unorganised but did you enjoy the experience?
Mikael: It was the worst ever! I will start with India, though. We played in Hyderabad, a place which I didn’t even knew that existed before. On the records, the population living there is seven million but most locals claim that they are at least twenty million people which is incredible. None of us had ever been to India before so we managed to spend a couple of days there outside the city, enjoying a really awesome view. There we played at this college, a campus area, in front of five thousand people – really cool people. We spent a couple of days in Goa after the show and then we flew back. We were supposed to go there again three weeks later but that arrangement was cancelled so we will need to reschedule that some other time. India was really cool; the nicest people, really devoted.
• In such places, people are still hungry for Metal, right?
Mikael: Yeah! They never had a Metal show in Hyderabad before, never! We are the first international band playing a gig there, so people were very excited and we were very excited! Very, very cool – I cannot wait to get back there! Georgia…a totally different thing! It’s always interesting, something that we are looking forward to, to play in countries that we’ve never been before because that first experience of going into a new country is always the best – that “holy sh*t, you’re here” and that “holy sh*t, we’re here”; that kind of feeling is amazing. The promoters in Georgia were known to us as we had done a festival in Kiev with them two summers ago or something, which was kind of sh*ty and chaotic but it worked out in the end and people were really cool, so we thought we should give it another go. So this promoter came to us and said “I am doing this festival” which was called Global East Festival and which was done in Kiev before and now it was to take place in Georgia for the first time. So he asked us if we were interested and we were like “ok, just give us the money in advance” but that never happened so we said “fine, we will cancel the show”. Then he started saying things like “we will give you more money, we will fix everything – don’t worry” and stuff like that. We thought that this sucked but, at the same time, there were so many people on Facebook and so many people visiting our website saying things like “you are coming to Georgia, it’s going to be awesome as we’ve been waiting for years and years as we never get any concerts here” and we thought that even though it’s going to be crappy, it’s going to be an experience so let’s do it. Once we arrived in Tbilisi (note: the capital of Georgia) we figured out straight away that these guys were probably going to rip us off as things looked kind of weird – not the kind of way that things normally work. So, we decided to kind of hold out there and say “look, we want cash in hand before we go to the festival site” which was six hours away from there. So, we spent the night in Tbilisi and nothing happened – the promoter guy running around, coming up with all sorts of different excuses every time. We were just laughing about it thinking that this is the craziest thing ever! The morning of the show, which was on a Saturday, they all of a sudden as if by magic come up with the money and we were like “ok, so now we can have it”. We went to the festival which was in the middle of a square in a city by the Black Sea – beautiful but not…it is a poor country, for sure, but they don’t really have the stuff needed. The festival doors were supposed to open at one, with six bands performing and Sabaton and us being the main groups. When we got there, the stage was not even finished and it was like six in the afternoon (laughs). So our guys started building the stage and everything but in the meantime we realised that we needed to be back at the airport in Tbilisi early next morning and that was a six hour drive away! We had to be there at either three or six in the morning, I cannot remember exactly, in order to catch our flight home and in order to do that we had to have finished our set within the next two hours and the stage was not yet ready and they haven’t yet let any people in! There was no backstage area at all, not even an area where we could be and stand where we would not be surrounded by members of the audience, no bathrooms to use, no beer or water to drink!
• Are you serious?
Mikael: At that point, all I wanted to do was to get drunk and forget about the whole thing (laughs). Eventually, Sabaton started playing in front of two hundred people or something like that, as small audience, but that is probably because most people expected the show to be cancelled at this stage. These few people were happy. When we went on stage we found out that the electricity, their currents and all other systems, were not strong enough for our guitar amplifiers so our guitars were not working and we had no time to fix them because we needed to play as many songs as we can within forty minutes and then leave straight away for the airport! So we played four songs without guitars, just bass guitar, drums, keyboards and vocals which was absolutely the worst show ever! Having said that, the audience was amazing! The guys who were there, they loved it and were amazing towards us so I felt so bad for what we have given them! When we were leaving we were all like “we’re so sorry – we will never do this again”. It was horrible – the worst show ever, and then we had to drive six hours back to the airport worrying that we would be late for our flight…that was the worst experience, I tell you, but we did it, the people that were there seemed happy even though it was the worst show ever, so I cannot wait to get back there and give them a proper show and make it up to them!
• I really hope that this experience does not stop you from going there again because remember that the same thing was pretty much happening in Greece in the late 80s and, as you well know, that is not the case anymore.
Mikael: No, no – we are not put off.
• That is good because these people are really hungry for it and these are the ones who deserve to get bands playing for them!
Mikael: Yeah, exactly. It was the same in South America for a long time; so many crappy promoters and dishonest people but we have been really fortunate as we have done some fantastic tours there.
• There are quite a few more dates left for this tour in Europe, as you will be playing places like Germany and Austria, right?
Mikael: Yep, and we also play places like Holland, Italy and France – we are playing in Paris tomorrow!
• So, pretty much till the end of the year, you are going to be busy touring.
Mikael: Yes, we will do this tour till the 21st of November and then we are going to go to Russia two weeks later. We are dong Russia, Finland and the Ukraine, which is amazing – I cannot wait! It’s going to be both cold and cool (laughs).
• So what happens next for the band after this tour is over? Any ideas? Are you going to take any specific amount of time off in order to recuperate from this tour?
Mikael: No, we have already done that! What we need to do is to start working on the new album!
• Alright! Any clue as to how it will be or sound –anything that you’re willing to give away at this point in time?
Mikael: No, I don’t think that I can! I know that there are quite a few ideas floating around but we haven’t really had any time to…disclose them to each other yet. Everybody is working on their own now and when we get home we will start sending all those files around and start working on them. I cannot wait!
• Neither can we! You have been both creative and consistent over the years so I am sure that whatever you decide to do will be interesting, at the very least. Thank you very much for your time, Mikael – I hope that you will enjoy tonight’s show and I hope that the rest of the tour is very successful for you guys.
Mikael: Hey, thanks a lot!
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ELEMENTS Make It Out Alive (indie)
PAUL GILBERT I Can Destroy (earMUSIC)
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